The Little Horse

The last five days of the eleventh-century Icelandic politician, writer of sagas, and famous murder victim Snorri Sturleleson (the Norwegian spelling, Snorre, is preserved in the book) make up Thorvald Steen’s most recently translated historical fiction, The Little Horse. Murdered on his own property for overdue political debts and ambitious/vengeful rivals, the book breaks down the five days. The structure provides clarity and directness, which Steen slowly unravels by traveling through Snorre’s memories and into the path of the lives intersecting his, of those who loved him, who hated him, and who killed him. The Little Horse shows just how much richness there is in dramatic irony. That we know Snorre’s end and he is ignorant is not single note. We can snicker, find fault and reason to mourn, but at its deepest expression, the dramatic irony is fate, death, and Steen shows it hovering over all of us. In the midst of this, Steen doesn’t abandon the ripe entertainment in a story of love, fatherhood, spies, betrayals, manipulation, revenge, and assassins attacking a man who has secret tunnels on his property and a son who kills on his orders in eleventh-century Iceland. It is a saga itself and Anderson’s translation accomplishes the difficult task of creating not just the descriptions of a historical time, but prose that has the stiffness of an older world, while still tumbling gently, never forgetting that Iceland is a land of beauty.

If historical fiction is straightforward, convinced of its own solidity, that the historical side coheres without the cracks of fiction, particularly the fractured narratives of post-modernity, then there is nothing to trust, naïveté or deception are in play. Done carelessly, plain facts mixed with the overwriting of a historical person to create the whole of a plot- and character-focused novel, leaves a thin fiction, easily undone by any inaccuracies and its leap over what is not and cannot be known.

Early on, it’s clear that Steen takes historical setting as an opportunity, a route opened to explore aspects of a man and life that reoccur in other lives and histories, in scopes miniscule and sweeping. The tale and its setting are neither a backdrop to make the novel stand out from others with a contemporary setting, nor a straightforward recounting. That Steen is aware that presumption comes along with writing about men and women who lived their own lives can be felt in glimmers and glimpses. Snorre himself offers Steen a chance to admit the complications. Snorre wrote histories and sagas, full of his own embellishments, and facing his death, he “began to wonder what his last words on earth would be. The ones he’d put in the mouths of various characters in Heimskingla [the sagas of Norse kings written by Snorre] would raise expectations of his own valediction.” There are consequences to writing the consciousnesses of those who once lived, and Steen sees that, in the risk of moral failing in writing a presumptuous historical fiction, there is room for moral accomplishment in writing a careful one. In his afterword, he writes “it is more odious not to engage in the fate of an individual, concerning the right of man, than not to do so.”

The fate is not only that Snorre has already been murdered, but that it was ever bound to happen: “On that same morning, a day’s ride away, it was decided that Snorre should die on Saint Maurice’s eve. Nobody breathed a word of this to him.” At this point we don’t know who decided this, or why. It feels as if no specific person or group did, simply that the decision happened, and then men were compelled to the actions to complete it. Even Snorre is dimly aware that something in the spirit of the world around him has turned on him, cursing Torkild, his smith, as he abandons the property, then spending his last days side-eying the rest of his people, wondering who will betray him next. It plays out as a dull paranoia: a rich, powerful man afraid of the weak and poor he rules over—but of course it isn’t paranoia.

As much as his murder is fate, is the inevitability of death, it is also the crushing weight of time, of history. This weight falls most heavily on Snorre, but if he were the only one burdened, the novel would not be the moral meditation that it is. Steen uses the perspective of historical fiction to take any life to its historical end. He does this with individual men, like a priest and his followers, stopped on their way to deliver a message to Snorre: “The ship they look foundered on the rocks off the English coast. The papal envoys drowned before help arrived. Here ends the story of the three messengers Snorre never met.” He does it with animals, whole species: “It had never flown. A short time later it lay still in the yard. It died without knowing fear, just as the last great auk would six hundred years later.”

Time and history manifest through Snorre’s memories, too. He is an aging man, given to dwelling—on his personal, political, and writing life. Steen drops the daily narrative to wander to age-old deals, plots, betrayals, affairs, and broken relationships. It is a historical recounting of facts and scenarios, while also a lyrical movement that suggests Snorre’s actions and interactions led him to this murder, even those not logically related. He may not have deserved to be murdered, but his personality made it inevitable. If along the way he had been a different man, a less cruel man, he would have more than these five days. This man made his son, Órækja, little more than a weapon, a crude and wild one that he can hardly control. Snorre does not himself kill, does not even necessarily order his son to do so, just points him in the direction of complicated situations that violence could, at least temporarily, resolve. Órækja reminds him of his own responsibility in this violence, so he drives him away, refusing him the love he craves. It is this that prevents this warrior son from being at Snorre’s side when his enemies are at the gate.

As the murder draws nearer, Steen begins to slow time down, with more departures from the day at hand, and scenes of action slow to a crawl. Snorre begins to disappear, already fading from the world, the historical Snorre replacing the man. Steen leaves him to spend more time with the men coming to kill him, telling parts of their stories. We watch Órækja almost stumble onto the plot. We realize that the woman he loves does indeed love him back, even for all she understands him. That Snorre is a cruel man is clear to everyone but him, though he has an inkling. At one point, he meditates on a legend he “never tired of.” It tells of a whale who killed all the sons of a priest, who then tortured and killed the creature. Snorre doesn’t know why he likes the story, dismissing that it is because “good” wins, but that it is unrelenting and brutal is a likely reason.

If Snorre has a place where he steps away from this version of himself, it is in his writing. This is his place of comfort. It is his legacy not based on harming or controlling others, though in his reliance on it as a retreat, that selfishness bleeds in. Writing became something other than a comfort; it was his way of hiding from the world. Remembering the last time he saw his son Jon before he too was murdered, Snorre too proud, too scared to open himself, focused on his writing “as if nothing had been said.” His life as a writer exposes his fears, his vulnerability held together with stiff, cold pride. That he wrote the historical fiction of his time links him to Steen, becoming unspoken compassion for him. Snorre as Steen creates him as a type of complicated man, unable to see his own confusion who can be selfish in the face of a God he believes in: “He invoked God’s name. He asked for God’s help, and then roundly abused him.” Steen exposes Snorre’s faults not to condemn, but to humanize.

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